That moment when you encounter a book that’s a true keeper. That moment when you read a book you wish you had as a child, or wish you had written yourself. I felt all of that, the first time I beheld My Hair Is a Garden by Cozbi A. Cabrera. It’s just so beautiful. The words and plot that resonated with me immediately, the helpful information and earnest inspiration, and those illustrations, those gorgeous illustrations, vivid and vibrant enough to be art in your home. It’s the book that belongs in every naturalista’s collection.
If the name Cozbi A. Cabrera seemed at all familiar to you, maybe you’re like me and you have a long memory for unique design. For years I remember being jealous of my New York City friends, who could visit Cozbi’s boutique and buy her beautiful clothes and incredible muñecas (handcrafted cloth dolls that Cozbi makes to honor her Honduran heritage). What I didn’t know, is that Cozbi also has a tremendous talent for art. Behind the scenes, besides making clothing and dolls, she has also been illustrating children’s books for a variety of authors. This is her first book of words and pictures, and it is a treasure. I had to ask her ALL the questions, and her responses are so thoughtful, insightful and inspiring. Read on for our interview!
Afrobella — I know your name first and foremost as a designer who made beloved clothing and dolls. And now here’s this incredible book! You are a true creative. Talk to me about the inspiration behind My Hair Is a Garden. This is such a beautiful book, so lush and full of art and intention. How long did it take you to write this book?
Cozbi — Well, thank you for your kind words. I wrote My Hair Is A Garden a little over a decade ago. After turning in art for a title I’d illustrated, an editor at a larger publishing house asked me if I had stories. I’d been a secret writer all my life. Secret and undetected and here was someone asking if I had stories. I submitted a few manuscripts and heard nothing for over 10 years. That same editor mentioned My Hair Is A Garden a couple of years ago to the folks at Albert Whitman and they followed up by requesting it. It’d blown up several hard drives ago, but I managed to locate a hard copy in one of my many bins!
Afrobella — Tell me about your process in writing My Hair Is a Garden. What came first, words or images?
Cozbi — In this case, the words came first. My task was then to expel the images I’d carried in my head. Tough work. Everything’s better in our heads. Anyone watching a film rendition of a familiar or beloved book is acquainted with how tough translating can be. You can’t help but smart a bit or be a little crestfallen. No different for me.
Afrobella — In reading it, I was captivated by so many details. As a Caribbean woman, I have to ask – is Miss Tillie from the islands? She’s straining sorrel so it reminded me of home!
Cozbi — Sorrel is so specific. I had a Jamaican friend ask me “What do you know about sorrel?” That was her way of expressing surprise of its mention. In her thinking, sorrel belonged to Jamaica, and not the Caribbean. There are so many variations in its preparation depending on which island you go to! My folks are from Honduras and I don’t recall my mother or aunts ever making it, but I’ve always been drawn to it– the fact that it’s harvested, it’s deep rich color and tang, its medicinal value – I imagined Miss Tillie as someone drawn to the many and varied gifts of the Caribbean and other cultures and has taken these treasures as her own.
Afrobella — Was there a real life Miss Tillie for you? Who were your hair inspirations, growing up?
Cozbi — My Miss Tillie was my mother who inspired me to do my own hair, because despite her best efforts wasn’t handling my hair to my liking. I got tired of hair shame and took matters into my own hands. I remember at around 9 finding a book on our home shelf called Polly Bergen’s Book of Beauty. I took it into my room and devoured it. In the book were instructions on how to detangle hair while shampooing. To my 9 year-old mind, this was revolutionary. My mother’s post shampoo custom was to towel blot, let my hair air dry as a tangled nest, and then proceed to detangle. It was an ordeal. Getting back to my mother, she might have pressed my hair twice in my life, for my First Communion and Confirmation. I’d walk away from the chair seething mad. I once had a teacher correct us by saying only dogs get mad, that people get upset. This is not true. My mother used very low heat, excessively blotted the hot comb on paper towels, waved the comb through the air to cool it down further, then blew on it. This not-hot-comb was then painstakingly passed through my hair in small sections. I sat in that kitchen for hours, only to get up and rush to the mirror with all my transformational hopes dashed. My hair looked no different than before. I don’t know if your readers remember press and curl. That was the pressing part. There wasn’t going to be any curling iron for me because from my mother’s point of view that meant additional heat. So I got a few pink curlers and went off to sleep hoping for the best. Of course I woke up to more disappointment. So yes, my mother, like Miss Tillie, stressed the value of not damaging natural hair, though I didn’t see it that way at the time.
Afrobella — Talk to me about the back of this book. My heart truly leapt with joy when I got to your recipes and hair care tips! Tell me what led to the inclusion of this super helpful information.
Cozbi — Oh, so glad you like:-) One reviewer on Amazon noticed that the inclusion of the tips was unusual for a book by a major publisher, but seeing it made her realize there’s been an egregious gap in children’s publishing.
I can’t tell you how many people stop me on the street to ask me something or another about my hair. I get questioned about shampoo or conditioner recommendations, moisturizers, hair handling, styling, you name it. I’ve had women leaning in between closing train doors to get that last bit of information. Sometimes I’m asked about hair care by moms of biracial or adopted children. I never offer unsolicited advice, but at times I notice a little resistance when I mention sealing wet hair with an oil-based moisturizer. This resistance shows up as bristling at the mention of oil. There are countless differences in Black hair textures even within the same family. Rarely do any 2 people have the same requirements. But extremely curly locks require oil and in some cultures, oil is the thing you remove, not put in, so it’s hard to reckon with what’s counter intuitive to your established practices or aims.
The back matter’s the tip of the iceberg. Though we ran out of space for this 32 page book, I have so many tips and recipes I’ve picked up over the years that people have found helpful, It could very easily be a prized companion volume like Polly Bergen’s book was for me.
Afrobella — What do you hope for readers of this book?
Cozbi — I’m hoping all readers walk away with an understanding to value what we’ve been given – be it a physical trait, talent or proclivity– and to be reminded of the other piece that requires our participation. That other piece is the part that’s up to us and is called cultivation. Sometimes to get there, we’ve got to be willing to ask someone else who, as Maya Angelou put it has “cut a new path”, or found a way.
In My Hair Is A Garden, a little black girl is at the center of the story. In it she discovers distinctions that serve her uniqueness. This discovery is grounding. But it’s clear she doesn’t live in the world by herself. A lot of messaging in her external world has shaped her beliefs about herself. The day she determines to set off on a different course, to change her story, it’s one person’s comment that’s causing a room full of laughter. The ones laughing might say they didn’t make the comment. We’re all complicit. We all are shaping our world daily and someone else’s perception of his/herself or place in it. We all are world changers. Sometimes we do so with intentionality, other times through carelessness, by going with the flow, rather than interrupting it.
I also hope readers will understand to value what other’s have been given. That’s why I feel it’s a book for all readers, not just for those who feel they can “relate” to MacKenzie. There’s a girl somewhere with our rooms with hair that’s different from our own, feet that are too big, teeth that are strong and not properly aligned, who doesn’t subscribe to our brand of cool and the list goes on. Can we honor, care for and love her? Accept her without pity? See her beauty? Listen to her story? Understand we are family?
Afrobella — What’s next for you, Cozbi?
Cozbi –– I have two titles on my painting table at the moment. One is a biography of Gwendolyn Brooks entitled, EXQUISITE, written by Suzanne Slade.
Next is to continue cultivating all of my gifts. That’s the example I care to set for all of our children. I’ve always been mindful to choose the sort of work that challenges me to grow creatively, even if it’s taken me outside of neat and tidy compartments. I’ve sought this over stability and predictability even. But next is always to go to the well and dig deeper with each gift. I trust there’ll be opportunities to bring more of my stories to our children. There’s no limit to next level mastery, no end to its exploration!
I love this interview, I love this book. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience with the world, Cozbi! You are an inspiration. Can’t wait to see what’s next!
All photos courtesy of Cozbi A. Cabrera and Albert Whitman & Co.